Fans packed the gym for the season opener against Bedford. While attendance for basketball games was declining in some urban areas, it was still the most popular event in many rural regions. And with the Pioneers returning all five starters from the previous season, expectations were high. They were projected by the media to have a big impact. Perhaps even win the state tournament.
There had been rumors circulating about the new kid on the team. It almost reached mythical proportions in some places, even to the point that Jesse would probably turn professional after the season. Who was this mystery player? Where did he come from? Was it all hype about his playing ability? Fans were wondering how he would fit in an already talented team. There was also the question about the team's chemistry with a new player in the lineup. The answers would have to come over the course of the season.
In the weeks leading up to the game, Cole Webster had been mum about the starting lineup with fans and the media. Even with his trusted assistant coach, Larry Billings.
"Have you decided on the starters?" Billings asked as the players were putting on their uniforms in the locker room. "At this point, I sure hope so. You know what I'm sayin'?"
"Well, Larry, I think I'm going to start the boys from last season," Coach Webster said. "Jesse will be the first player off the bench. I know it sounds crazy because he's the best player on the team, if not one of the best in the state. I just don't want any dissension on the team, especially at this point. Maybe there will be some changes during the season, but I want cohesion right now."
"That makes sense, Coach," Billings said, nodding his head. "Have you discussed it with him?"
"We talked about it after practice yesterday. He doesn't have a problem with it. He said he prefers it that way because he's the newcomer. He's such a great kid. He amazes me on and off the court. I don't know if I've ever been around a more mature and unselfish kid in my life."
"He's a special player," Billings said. "There's no doubt about it."
As the Walker County players filed out of the locker room in unison for pre-game warmups, the pep band stood and blared a rousing rendition of the school fight song. Cheerleaders waved pompoms and led the team onto the court. The Bedford Bears were already on the floor, in two lines shooting layups. Most of the eyes in the stands were focused on Jesse as the Pioneers lined up for layups. He seemed to float toward the basket as the ball rolled off his fingertips and into the basket. Although he hadn't played a single minute for the Pioneers, Jesse even looked impressive in warmups.
Jesse's parents were seated with the parents of other players in a special roped-off section occupying the first three rows at midcourt. Several waved and smiled at their sons, and they returned the gestures or simply smiled.
"I'm so nervous," Mary said to Joe as she clutched his hand. "I hope Jesse has a good game."
"I'm sure he will," Joe said reassuringly. "He seems relaxed out there."
"Doesn't he look handsome in his uniform?" she said.
"Yes, dear," Joe said with a grin. "I'm not so sure Jesse would like to hear that. But I know what you mean. He's grown into a fine looking young man."
Jesse didn't look in the stands during warmups. He was totally focused on the court. With ten minutes before tipoff, Billings clapped his hands several times, a signal for the Pioneers to return to the locker room for final game instructions. Freddie and the other managers grabbed the towels on the floor and carried them to the bench. Webster was already in the locker room, holding a clipboard, as the players sat on bench in front of him. After he told them who was starting, several players looked at each other with disbelieving expressions. Jesse didn't show any reaction. Cody Vane smiled and glanced around at his teammates.
"Men, let's get the season off to a good start," Webster said. "Keep in mind what we've worked on in practice the past few weeks. Play hard-nosed defense and attack the boards. Bedford has good size so we need to box out under the basket. Let's communicate with each other out there." After he was finished, the players huddled and put their hands together and shouted, "Pioneers!"
"I told you Christopher wouldn't be starting," Cody said to Eddie Joe as they returned to the court. "Coach Webster knows it's not a good thing to mess with a team's chemistry."
"I must admit I thought he'd be starting," Eddie Joe said. "He's a better player than me."
"But it's chemistry, dummy," Cody said. "That's what matters. If you don't have chemistry, it doesn't matter who you have out there."
"If you say so," Eddie Joe said, shaking his head. "Thanks for your two cents."
"Man, you just don't get it."
Both teams showed opening-game jitters, turning over the ball and missing shots in the first few minutes. It wasn't until Rashawn broke inside for a powerful slam dunk that the home crowd got involved in the game. With four minutes left in the first quarter, Jesse made his first appearance in the game, with the Pioneers leading 12-6. With a midcourt steal, the Pioneers took off on a fast break. Jesse dribbled the ball on the right wing and drove toward the basket, then flipped up a soft pass for an alley-oop dunk by Rashawn. The Pioneers came up with another steal, and this time Rashawn took a pass at the free-throw, and whipped it to Jesse in the corner. Jesse drilled a long shot that zipped through the net for a three-pointer that drew aahs from the crowd. When the quarter ended, the Pioneers had built a 25-8 lead with Jesse remaining in the lineup.
After the Pioneers increased their margin to 35 points in the third quarter, Webster started substituting players freely. When it was over, all 12 players on the roster had scored as the Pioneers won 86-57. Jesse finished with 26 points and Rashawn had 22 to lead the Pioneers. It was quite a debut for Jesse, and an impressive start for the Pioneers.
"Where did you get that kid?" the Bedford coach asked Coach Webster after the game. "I don't recall ever seeing him."
"Who?" Coach Webster said, trying to suppress a smile. "Which one?"
"You know who, you son of a gun!"
"His family moved here from Florida."
"The rich only get richer," the Bedford coach said. "We could sure use someone like him."
"We'll make good use of him."
"I'm sure you will."
"Good luck this season. We'll see you again in a couple of months," Coach Webster said as he went to the locker room.
"I'm not sure if I want to," the Bedford coach said with a laugh.
Smiles crossed the faces of the players when Coach Webster entered the locker room.
"Good job, men," he said. "I liked the effort, but we need to build on it. Let's not let this game go to our heads because we're going to face some bigger and better opponents this season. And that'll be happening soon. I'll see you at practice Monday."